THE manager sat with his head in his hands half an hour after promotion had been sealed.
Paul Warne had felt the pressure take its insidious grip for the previous two months as the battle for League One automatic promotion heated up to boiling point.
Now, at Gillingham, on the last day, in the last minutes, that battle had been won.
The boss couldn’t celebrate, didn’t know how to celebrate, lacked the energy to celebrate. All he had to offer was exhaustion and relief.
So, with his media duties completed and the party going on nearby, he sat on an unused orange stretcher against a wall in a gloomy hangar inside Priestfield Stadium covering his eyes as he stared sightlessly towards the ceiling high above.
Warne is not a regular drinker but two beer bottles were standing by his feet. The Amstel had been consumed, the Birra Moretti was untouched.
It had been some campaign, arguably the most memorable in Rotherham United’s history, certainly the most compelling of the manager’s five-and-a-half-year reign.
They’d wobbled at the worst time — losing three games on the trot in a March/April run of nine league matches that brought only two victories — and recovered at just the right time.
By the time the final three matches came around, the Millers were back to being the irresistible, hard-running group that had taken the division by the scruff of the neck, occupied top spot for weeks on end and opened up a 13-point gap between themselves and third place.
As February became March, Rotherham and Wigan Athletic were going up. All that was left was for them to argue among themselves about who would take the title. MK Dons were coming but too late and from too far back to mount a real challenge.
But then striker Will Grigg — “the glue in our side,” said Warne — limped out of the season and top scorer Michael Smith limped on with a foot injury that required injections before games and at half-time.
A broken hand did for goalkeeper Josh Vickers, wing-backs Shane Ferguson and Mickel Miller would fall by the wayside and midfielders Ollie Rathbone and Dan Barlaser dipped for a few games before magnificently rediscovering themselves.
By the time of a dispiriting 3-0 midweek defeat a long, long way from home at Portsmouth on April 12 the top two was no-longer a two-horse race.
Warne fuelled growing concerns by being a distracted, agitated figure as he addressed journalists under the floodlights at Fratton Park.
What hasn’t been revealed until now is that there had been an incident — not involving any of his players — in the Fratton Park tunnel just before he emerged to speak and it was that as much as his side’s poor display that was contributing to his air of disquiet.
All the while, MK were still coming.
Then there was Freddie. Or rather there wasn’t Freddie.
Centre-forward Ladapo had very publicly handed in a transfer request in January but not landed the move he was hoping for.
Warne handled the situation well, leaving out the record signing for a spell until peace appeared to have resumed as the player scored crucial February goals against Sheffield Wednesday and Morecambe.
Ladapo ended the truce with a trio of April contributions — all in defeats — that left so much to be desired that he was no longer welcome in the matchday dressing room as the season-defining last eight days and three games of the run-in approached.
The Millers would take seven points.
A tweak in formation galvanised the players and asked different questions of the opposition. Crucially, it also gave the flying Chiedozie Ogbene a new lease of life further forward and at times he was unplayable as Oxford United, Sunderland and finally the Gills felt Rotherham’s full force.
Gillingham, needing a result to stay up, gave their all but fell to the footballing moment of the campaign as substitute Georgie Kelly swept in a late goal that clinched victory and a rise to the second tier amid scenes of utter pandemonium in the away end.
At Priestfield, the tension slowly seeped out of Warne as the alcohol slowly seeped in. Around the corner, well within earshot, the players were a happy, riotous rabble, but it was different for the management.
The boss’s right-hand man, Richie Barker, sitting quietly nearby with goalkeeping coach Andy Warrington, looked more tired than pleased, managing only a thin smile. Going up had taken much effort and much out of them.
Their squad had started the season well but not brilliantly before catching fire in October.
Portsmouth, tipped by many to go up, were overwhelmed at AESSEAL New York Stadium and Sunderland, another Championship contender, overrun.
MK, on their own patch, were squeezed to a bemused standstill by relentless pressing and front-front drive in a performance so complete that Barker regards it as the Millers’ finest of 2021/22.
Elsewhere Ipswich Town couldn’t cope, Doncaster Rovers were blown away and Wednesday had a go that wasn’t good enough in the derby at Hillsborough.
Poor old Donny. Three times they faced Rotherham — once in the Papa John’s Trophy — and three times they were vanquished, conceding 13 goals, scoring none.
October stretched into November and December and Warne’s men stretched away with Wigan. By the time Boxing Day brought a 1-0 loss at Accrington Stanley the undefeated run was a club-record 21 matches.
The Millers were reaping the rewards of their recruitment. Rathbone had arrived from Rochdale and was busy being the busiest player in the third tier, Ferguson was bringing international class from Millwall while loan duo Grigg and young defender Rarmani Edmonds-Green were making telling contributions.
Smith was scoring for fun, there were game-changing options on the bench, veteran captain Richard Wood was leading, inspiring, seeing off his age and most centre-forwards, the talented midfield boy, Ben Wiles, was becoming the main man.
“Big, physical, direct,” said most rival managers, usually after their side had been beaten. Really? Rotherham weren’t quite as big as in previous years and certainly not as physical. While they were direct, they also showed they could play.
Wigan were League One’s most consistent, efficient team and were worthy champions. MK could lay claim to being the slickest footballing outfit. Neither of them, though, quite reached the levels Rotherham did when everything clicked.
Of all the sides in the EFL’s three divisions, only the Latics, with 92, accumulated more points than the Millers’ 90.
Warne’s side set a new club mark for clean sheets, 27, conceded fewer league goals, 33, than any other side in the division and for a long spell were the highest scorers.
In February they kept winning but the coruscating form of earlier had deserted them. March brought the blip, April brought Papa John’s success and Wembley but also the continuation of the blip.
Wembley was a great day out yet seven matches to get there had led to a congested fixture schedule and disruption to the Millers’ progress in the league.
Ladapo’s absence was a turning point. Suddenly the Millers — all the Millers — were in it together for the final fling.
Rathbone was Rathbone again, Barlaser was Barlaser, Ogbene couldn’t be stopped, Rotherham were Rotherham.
The spirit was evident as their walking wounded took the trouble to keep turning up, their show of support almost a comical sight as they leapt around amid the casts, crutches and protective boots while results returned to normal.
Sunderland were dominated at the Stadium of Light in the penultimate game — when only an 87th-minute freak own goal cost the Millers a deserved victory — to set up the day that will never be forgotten by those who were there.
The roll call at Gillingham read: second place, a hat-trick of League One promotions under their manager, a promotion and cup double in the same season for the first time ever.
MK hadn’t quite come after all.
Warne was still taking refuge on the orange stretcher. He’d done it, his team had done it. The journey had been epic, tortuous, wonderful, worrying and the destination had been reached.
The joy would come eventually but not just yet. Let him sit, wallow, breathe, let him look nowhere and think of nothing, let the players and the fans do the celebrating on his behalf.
He sighed deeply for the hundredth time that afternoon, the millionth time in those last eight weeks.
Then he flipped open the bottle of Moretti.
THE CHAIRMAN’S VERDICT
“IT’S been a long season. We’ve had a hard fight and we’ve got what we deserved.
“The recruitment has been excellent.
“The game at Sheffield Wednesday stands out. They had some nice, fancy play — I don’t mean that disrespectfully — and looked good on the ball but we got two goals while they didn’t get any. And goals, obviously, make the difference between winning and losing.
“Sunderland, home and away ... we showed them that we’re the better footballing side.
“We were sailing through until the last 11 or so games. Like everybody, I got a bit concerned when we started to lack form in March but I always told everybody that we would get there. I’m a ‘glass half full’ kind of guy.
“We’ve never had a squad with this quality and depth before. We’ve got two first-class goalkeepers and the scope further up the pitch to change things.
“The depth of the squad has been a key thing. We could replace anyone throughout the team, with the exception of Michael Smith maybe.
“The manager and his staff ... what can I say about them? They’re the best in the league. The coaches, the medical department, the recruitment team, the grounds people, they’ve all played a part.
“The team on the pitch have been superb, the team off the pitch have been superb. Everyone has pitched in and it’s been a really enjoyable campaign.”
— Tony Stewart
FIVE KEY GAMES
Lincoln City 1 Rotherham 1, Tue Sep 14
The start of the long unbeaten run. The match ended in a draw but should have finished 5-1 to Rotherham. Rarmani Edmonds-Green came into the side and found his feet and Dan Barlaser was deployed as a deep-lying midfielder for the first time. He would go on to make the EFL League One Team of the Year.
Rotherham 5 Sunderland 1, Sat Oct 30
Promotion tips Sunderland were obliterated in the second half. The division had been warned.
Plymouth Arygle 0 Rotherham 1, Sat Feb 26
The Millers were made to work extremely hard by an excellent play-off-chasing Pilgrims side in front of a big crowd. The three points gained that day would prove to be decisive in the final reckoning.
Rotherham 1 Ipswich Town 0, Sat April 16
Michael Smith's 25th goal of the season stopped the rot after three successive defeats. MK Dons would be defeated later in the day as momentum took a significant shift. Rotherham would go on to lose again, but only once as they ended their campaign in style.
Rotherham 2 Oxford United 1, Sat April 23
The match when everybody really started to believe again. Oxford, needing to win to keep alive their top-six hopes, were well beaten after the break by a team returning to their standards of old.
MICHAEL Smith’s 19 League One goals made him the seventh-top scorer in the division during the regular season.
Heading the list was Wigan Athletic’s Will Keane with 26, followed by Sunderland’s Ross Stewart (24), Cheltenham Town’s Alfie May (23), Morecambe’s Cole Stockton (23), MK Dons’ Scott Twine (20) and Oxford United’s Matty Taylor (20).